An outdoor life
Adventure always beckoned Susie Rittenhouse
Susie Rittenhouse was in search of one last big adventure.
She found it on the open seas of the Atlantic Ocean, and it was quite the adventure.
When she shared memories of that excursion a few weeks back, Susie’s adventuresome life was down to only a few days.
Susie had always been a fighter, always searching for adventure and challenges, but she knew cancer would soon win this unmerciful battle.
As the longtime Grand Junction resident searched her mind for memories of that last great adventure, a satisfied smile emerged.
“When I close my eyes, I picture those moments,” she said.
Moments from a nine-year sailing odyssey along the eastern shore of the United States, the Caribbean and along the coast of South America — 31 countries in all.
“I had a strong urge to embark on one more grand adventure, much as I had experienced all my life,” she said. “I really savored doing the trip.”
A solo voyage
Starting when she was 58 years old, going from 2002 to 2011, Susie made a solo voyage in her 42-foot sailboat named “Pharos.”
“I know you have these visions of grandeur of what I did, but it wasn’t really like that,” she said from her bed at Larchwood Inns.
The trek was a physically demanding trip, full of challenges. There were a series of lessons along the way as she taught herself how to be a better sailor.
“In the beginning, it was something that was challenging because you don’t realize what all is involved,” she said.
Like navigating into a bay, docking the Pharos and taking down the sails.
“How do I take the sails down? How do I do all these little things along the way? So I had to teach myself,” she said. “The learning curve was huge.”
Susie’s eyes closed as she rested and the medication took over, but the smile remained anchored with the memory.
Susie was first introduced to sailing when she was 8 years old in southern Michigan and did “quite a bit of sailing in the following years.” So, she was far from a beginner on the seas.
“I had the skills of navigation, the self confidence and the creative problem-solving nature that I would need,” she said. “I felt invigorated at the thought of going.”
As her eyes opened again, another memory washed over her. Big waves, 20-foot waves and the physically exhausting task of those battles.
Meticulously, she described what it was like to struggle with those huge waves and the unrelenting barrage created as storms raged and battered the Pharos.
“It took a lot of concentration to handle those waves,” she said. “You have to pay close attention to them and pay attention to the nuances of the wave.”
Ready for adventure
Susie, a former president of the Grand Valley Audubon Society, had satisfying outdoor adventures in her past like kayaking and mountaineering, so she knew about adversity.
“I knew in my heart that I had a lifetime of experience behind me,” she said.
But a nine-year solo sailing trek with countless chapters of adversity, challenges and loneliness that can wear down the most determined man or woman?
“I did it to just see if I could handle it and make it through all those trials. There were times I just had to fight through. There’s such a sense of pride and sense of completion,” she said.
Clearing the mental hurdles and the problem-solving challenges of being on a solo voyage was possibly the most uplifting part of her trip.
“There’s a real joy when you try so hard to brainstorm and think about ways to think about a problem,” she said. “I really get charged up when I think about those times when I was thinking outside the box.”
She let those memories kick around for a while, and the smile returned.
“I didn’t want the box to be the only way to think,” she said. “It was always very satisfying.”
Keeping her guard up
To embark on such an ambitious journey at 58 took a steadfast commitment.
“I had no idea how long I would be gone. I would be sailing alone, which is unusual for a woman,” she said.
Susie talked a lot about sailing alone and the hardships and tribulations of being a woman at the helm of a sailboat.
“As a female, you end up having your tentacles out,” she said. “I never had anything happen, but I think that was partly because I always had my guard up.”
Then she laughed.
“There was this one time,” she said, holding up her right index finger.
As she carefully constructed the memory, the smile grew.
She was gliding into a dock when two men realized a woman was behind the wheel. She said it happened more than once.
“They would all freak out. ‘It’s a woman, it’s a woman!’ ” She said, laughing. “I’d be like, ‘It’s OK,’ but they were very nervous that I was going to hit the dock.”
Her favorite place on her nine-year journey was the historic section of Cartagena, Colombia.
She described the cobblestone streets, rock walls and a sea of bougainvillea, a gorgeous colorful plant. The sights, sounds and smells have never departed her memories as she talks about villagers dressed in colorful clothing pushing carts filled with fruits and vegetables.
“Life is lived as it has been lived for hundreds of years,” Susie said.
Day after day, she would row her small dinghy to shore and walk 20 minutes to this 500-year-old village. Along the walk, she would pass a bronze statue of a beautiful, naked woman on her side. The bronze was brightest on the statue’s breasts and buttocks.
“I always got a kick out of that,” she said with a smile.
Lifetime of memories
Nine years and enough memories to fill a couple of lifetimes, Susie recalled story after story and special moments from her grand adventure. Looking back, she considers the overall adventure and what it meant to her.
“I was tremendously proud. There were all sorts of expectations and challenges when I started,” she said.
It’s the kind of pride that comes with the completion of an exhilarating adventure and the satisfaction of a mammoth accomplishment.
Her eyes opened again, and they were bright with memory. Her voice was weak, but it got stronger when she remembered that feeling.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever done something that you finish and you are like, ‘OHHHHHHH, YESSSS! That was fantastic,’ ” she said. “All those goals that you set, and you completed them.”
She let the memory linger as she closed her eyes again. She was drained and tired, and the medication was taking hold of her.
With her eyes still closed, the smile returned one last time before she drifted off to sleep.
“I had to finish. I’m not one to give up,” she said.
Susie refused to just sail through life without searching for adventure.
Around 6:30 p.m. last Saturday, Susie Rittenhouse’s life of adventure came to an end. She was 71.
It was a life full of adventure. It was quite a life.